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Yesterday I wrote about the likelihood that many Catholic institutions will capitulate to the spirit of our age, which has made gay rights into the Great Cause of justice. Alan Jacobs zeros in on an analogy I make to the Catholic Church’s 1933 Concordat with Germany negotiated by Eugenio Pacelli, then Vatican Secretary of State. (In my original article I called him Pius XII. It was not until 1939 that he was elected pope.) He finds the analogy unhelpful and suggests that I am blind to the imperatives of charity.

I won’t nit-pick his description of same-sex couples in Nebraska as legally married. (They’re not, because Nebraska does not recognize same-sex marriage, though of course in all likelihood the courts will put an end to that in fairly short order.) Instead, I want to contest his reading of the Concordat analogy. He assumed I’m making an analogy between Nazism and gays. It’s obvious that the analogy is instead between the Church in the 1930s and the Church today.

Let me spell it out more clearly.

After World War I, Europe entered two long decades of crisis. It was thought to be obvious that liberal democracy is ineffective and that “history” was moving forward, ushering in “new realities” that simply had to be faced. Young people were in the vanguard and the literature of the time was full of prophecies about the inevitability of either communism or fascism. One didn’t make arguments about the future—that’s a bourgeois conceit, a holdover of superannuated humanism. Instead, the future would be made by those bold enough to seize the initiative. To be sure, a great many people, perhaps most, desired neither communism nor fascism. But they were fearful and intimidated. Most were silent and felt they had to accommodate themselves to the “new realities.”

It was in this context that Eugenio Pacelli successfully negotiated the Concordat with Germany after Hitler had assumed power. Like his boss, Pius XI, Pacelli was anti-communist. And like Pius XI, who had earlier closed a deal with Mussolini, Pacelli regarded fascism as the lesser of evils. But this did not make them fans either. They were primarily concerned to preserve the viability of the Church in what they saw (rightly) as a very volatile and dangerous time. They were also completing a decades-long project of securing the independence of the Church as a social-political institution in but not of the modern nation state. Concordats were a key part of the project.

The Concordats pretty much worked as Pacelli and Pius XI hoped. Indeed, the Italian and German governments’ relations with the Church are still governed by them. The Church in those countries was not destroyed (as the Soviets attempted). Catholicism remained “viable.” But there can be no doubt that the Concordats conferred legitimacy on the German and Italian fascist regimes, which is of course exactly why Hitler and Mussolini signed them. There’s also no doubt that the Concordats, especially the German one, undercut Catholic resistance (such as it was).

The sexual revolution is quite unlike the social revolutions that made communism or fascism seem like the only real options in some many Europeans countries nearly a hundred years ago. It’s an authoritarianism of permission, which is something quite different. There will be no concentration camps, no jackbooted secret police, no mobilization for global war—just atomized social life, the further reduction of identity to economic relations, and the deconstruction of the natural family.

But there are similarities. Like that earlier time, we’re told gay marriage is inevitable (along with many other things). It’s the “direction of history.” Moreover, this isn’t something one argues for. It’s a self-validating Great Cause. And we all feel the pressure, the intimidation, the shaming, the denunciations of dissent emanating from establishment institutions, even the Supreme Court.

It’s in this context that we’re seeing efforts by Catholic institutions to figure out how to negotiate informal concordats. What sorts of concessions help us avoid being “haters”? How can we dodge being marginalized, irrelevant, even suppressed as “bigoted”? How can our Christian witness survive if we’re on the wrong side of what many now call “the great civil rights issue of our time”? A concordat with culture is widely felt as necessary, which is why they’re being negotiated.

I don’t know the decision-makers at Creighton or Notre Dame, both of which (along with many other Catholic universities) have opted to provide benefits to same-sex spouses. But I’m willing to bet that, as was the case for Catholic leaders in the 1920s and 1930s who were ambivalent about fascism but saw it as far better than communism, they tend to think the sexual revolution, while tending toward regrettable excesses, is better than the “bad old days” of repressive sexual morality.

And so they sign their concordats with a clear conscience. They don’t “approve” of gay marriage, but they’re convinced that it’s good to put that issue “behind us.” And if it undermines resistance, well, that’s not the worst thing, because in the end the traditional moralists are more threatening to human flourishing than today’s progressives. After all, they’re on the side of charity, not mean-spirited judgment, inclusion, not “fear of the other,” and so forth.

We need to contemplate the Concordat Analogy, I think, rather than dismiss it as cheap culture-war rhetoric. For we can learn a lot from the history of those very difficult times, things that should give us sympathy for those who compromise (I’m emphatically not one to denounce Pacelli) and things that should give us pause.

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